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Transparency: Pinot Noir Meets Ben Webster


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Welcome back to Jazz & Juice—after last month's venture into the opulent, it's a perfect time to venture into the idea of less being more.


When something is transparent, we see beyond it. In a way, transparency gives us another dimension of appreciation; we not only experience the object or the work that we are seeing through, but also what is behind it. Seeing, or hearing, through something means experiencing its causes and influences, whether that be breath, earth, or simply the truth. In music and wine when a sound or taste reveals more than it disguises, its a hallmark of mastery.

In music, too much ornamentation can leave us unable to fully grasp the workings of the song, even when we appreciate the level of skill needed to perform it. To utilize transparency in sound and in creative choices is to be clear, purposeful, and honest. To lay something bare is to exhibit great courage in any art, especially in music.

When a red wine is transparent (or rather translucent,) oftentimes it is a sign the wine has more to reveal than just bold ripe fruit. The greatest of these wines speak clearly of how and when they were made, and reveal the true character of the place they come from.

In other Jazz & Juice pairings, we've been bowled over by opulence and carried away in wildness. Here, let's examine transparency to fully appreciate our wine and music in every dimension.

The Jazz

There is nothing more elemental to life than breath. When we speak of the human voice, or instruments that rely on air to create tone, it is the primary ingredient of their sound.

Ben Webster's sound is beautiful for its tone and sensitivity, and one of its most striking attributes is the audibility of the breath in his sound. Often in his playing it feels like breath is his sound, which he adds or subtracts as the song inspires him to do so. "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," by David Mann and Bob Hillard, is a song of transparent longing. As a ballad, the lyrics don't have any of the swagger of a barstool lament. It is a vulnerable, liminal moment of the not quite day, not quite night.

On Ben Webster meets Oscar Peterson (Verve, 1960), Webster brings clarity to his choices in this song, and a naked yearning to his sound. Even if you don't know the lyrics "you'd be hers if only she would call," you hear it in his interpretation of the line just after the one minute mark. While another player would want to open up at that melodic climax, Webster emphasizes the pining, humble cry of a lover without pride that is even more affecting for its understatement.

The clarity of the arrangement contributes further to the transparency of style. Oscar Peterson's introduction of the verse sets up a spare theme that he continues as the tune develops, allowing Webster's work on the melody to stay at the fore. Peterson's choices are crystalline and economical, which makes his tonality-expanding arpeggio at the end all the more mysterious and poignant. The minimalist choices by bassist Ray Brown on and drummer Ed Thigpen elegantly frame the song.

Webster characteristically performs this ballad very succinctly; it's a trenchant track in which he doesn't add any more than his emotion requires. Although this is a song best known with its lyrics, Webster manages to sing them without needing words.

The Juice

Pinot Noir is a grape that offers a combination of character and transparency, making it the varietal of choice in some of the most sought after and revelatory wines of the world. Most of these examples come from Burgundy, France, where this month's wine originates.

Domaine Chevrot Bourgogne Rouge 2018 is a Pinot Noir that expresses itself through revelation of place as much as through its fruit, much in the way Webster's sound uses breath and tone. The bottle's label tells us it is a regional level wine: Burgundies are labeled according to the notability of their vineyards' sites, ascending from Regional, Village, Premier Cru and Grand Cru. A regional level Bourgogne like this is a valuable window into a producer's style that can entice further journeys into more rarified vineyard sites (this one is actually a village wine in disguise, but more on that in the podcast.)

The color of the wine is rich but translucent. It has dark cherry and raspberry on the nose, and forest-like earthiness that speaks through the fruit. Allspice and sweet sage lift the aromas and lead to the first taste, which delivers on the palate everything the aromas promised with clarity. The fruit is a vehicle to reveal the interplay of earth, tannin and spice. The wine reflects its place with transparency, every element acts more like stained glass than an oil painting.

Both our wine and song are distinctive, but without bombast. With nothing to hide or obscure their qualities, the clarity of their value is on full display.

What's Next

Join me on the podcast in a week or so to further explore Ben Webster's career as well as the song "In The Wee Small Hours." We'll also delve deeper into the complexities of Burgundy.

Want to get more wine and music pairings? Join the Jazz & Juice mailing list where soon I'll be starting a weekly exclusive pairing series!

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